22 June 2014

Traditional Touches

Think of Scotland and many things spring to mind.  For the Japanese and Americans, it seems, whisky and golf are the pre-eminent Scottish symbols.  Those with a love for the outdoors will see accessible mountain ranges and surprisingly well-developed ski resorts, while those whose interests are of a more sedentary nature might look to haggis, deep-fried Mars Bars, cans of Irn-Bru or the ubiquitous, grease-filled Scots Pie, as the ultimate symbols of Scottish cuisine.  Fashionistas see Tartan as Scotland's gift to their world, while those of a literary bent might associate the country with gritty and raw detective novels set in Glasgow or gentler ones set in Botswana.  Those in the financial world see it as a land of thrift and careful husbandry of resources; unless, that is, they are derived from the North Sea where, for those whose real interest lies in accumulating money at whatever cost, the oil industry is seen as the true purpose of Scotland (my nephew comes up with the lovely term "Rig-Pigs" for the innumerable loud-mouthed men who flock to the east coast to work in the oil and gas industry).  Art snobs believe Edinburgh tops Europe for its art galleries and festival, and Trendy Young Things think a Fringe has nothing to do with hair but lots to do with opportunities to amuse in Scotland. And those who feel the true soul of a nation lies in its folk art and music, see Scotland as the land of the Ceilidh, the Bagpipe and the Traditional Fiddle.

Attending a gathering devoted to Traditional Scottish Fiddling (of the musical kind, I hasten to add) I was handed a guide book to let me know what made a good Traditional Scottish Fiddler.  Apparently "In the past the fiddle was held not under the chin but under the shoulder.  But modern fiddlers have higher artistic and musical ideals, and have adopted a more violinistic approach".  Which begs the question, what is Traditional Scottish Fiddling and what is Proper Violin Playing of Traditional Scottish Fiddle Music?

I feel our man on the left is holding it too far below
the shoulder even for an arch-traditionalist!

Of course, the word Traditional means different things to different people.  In the case of Scots fiddlers, most of the music they play goes back no further than the Victorian age (and very little of it is that old) and even "traditional" airs seem largely to have been composed by Robbie Burns (1759-1796).  Nevertheless, there is a fine tradition of fiddle playing which you can still encounter in remoter areas, untainted by "higher artistic and musical ideals", and away from the interfering eyes of "experts on traditional music", you might still see a fiddler talking, looking around or even, on one memorable occasion, smoking a cigarette (the ban on the traditional Scottish past time of smoking in pubs has had unforeseen repercussions far beyond the prevention of lung cancer and heart disease) while playing, his fiddle grasped in a claw-like left hand which never changes position, rarely indulges in vibrato but seems to have an unerring instinct for intonation, ornamentation and controlled portamento (not, I hasten to add, words which any self-respecting Traditional Fiddler should understand).

No good for Beethoven - ideal for Robbie Burns
It worries me that the "artificiation" (there's a word the Americans haven't thought of yet) of traditional music is actually killing it.  If you need a classically-honed technique to be a good Traditional Fiddler, you are no longer a Traditional Fiddler.  It's an issue which affects so much in the world of ethnomusicology where there is a tendency to elevate a traditional amateur pastime into a formalised artistic endeavour.  Competitions and intellectual discussion on traditional art inevitably lead to the creations of a set of criteria which, by their very nature, go completely against the purpose and origins of traditional music.  Traditional music is, more-or-less by definition, part of an oral tradition.  Formalise it by devising rules and it can no longer be called properly Traditional.

1 comment:

  1. Good to be able to read your blog after the long while.
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